Europe: The Right’s Hollow Victories and the Ineptitude of the Left

June 8, 2009

BNP leader Nick Griffin

BNP leader Nick Griffin

What are we supposed to make of these European election results? Some of us are pretty disgusted (“atrocious” judges Richard Seymour) and some of us are blaming the voters (step forwards Labour MP Shahid Malik after the BNP’s successes in Yorkshire). But the long term implications of these elections are hazy at best.

Atrocious is certainly apposite, given the strong showing of far-right parties across Europe. The BNP will take ex-National Front chairman Andrew Brons and perennial Hitler wannabe Nick Griffin to Europe as MEPs, having attracted 250,000 votes between them in Yorkshire and Humberside and the North-West respectively. Brons took the opportunity to tactfully tell voters that what is happening in Bradford “isn’t immigration…it’s colonialism” – a harbinger of things to come perhaps, particularly in towns like Barnsley where the party took 16 percent of the vote, along with 15 percent in Rotherham and 12 percent in Doncaster.

Donnie also returned a mayor from the English Democrats party, Peter Davies, who – riding on the back of public hatred of the local establishment after years of corruption and the fatal incompetence of its social services – has actually promised a referendum on whether his post should even exist, meaning that the English Democrat breakthrough could be brief. Unfortunately that is highly unlikely, given the nature of power-holding and right-wing demagoguery. Davies is more likely to make a splash by cutting translation services for ethnic minorities, and by quashing council funds for the city’s gay pride event. “My policy on gays and lesbians is very simple,” Davies says, “I don’t think councils should be spending money on them parading through town advertising their sexuality.”

But does this mean that the north of England has succumbed to a wave of endemic intolerance, racism and old-fashioned little Englander nationalism? Well, one spin that you could but on the Doncaster affair is the simple one that, when an establishment utterly fails to provide decent services and is seen to be enriching itself at public expense, there is bound to be a reaction and, in the absence of a credible alternative to the left of the establishment parties, that reaction will inevitably be to the right. But thankfully, our nation hasn’t experienced such failings at a national level..

Oh dear. Actually, the far right vote held up well across Britain. In Wales, for example, the BNP polled about 5.4 percent of the vote. In London, UKIP, the BNP and the English Democrats polled about 15 percent between them. In the East, UKIP won 19 percent of the vote (and the BNP 6 percent).  In the East Midlands, UKIP, the BNP and the English Democrats polled some 30 percent of the vote – and I could go on.

But a closer look at Doncaster offers some more hope, of sorts. Davies won with 16,900 or so first choice votes. Yet he was outpolled in the first round by Mick Maye, a more moderate, community minded independent with the backing of local Greens and Lib Dems. After second choices were tallied up, Maye had earned 24,990 votes to Davies 25,344, a wafer thin victory. But if you look at the Tory and Labour votes (28,000 of them) and compare it to the BNP vote (8,000), it looks unlikely that the far-right is dominant in Doncaster. Mick Maye’s insurgent campaign narrowly failed to take enough Labour and Tory votes, which will probably have some party loyalists questioning their future choices. An opening for the independent candidate can be expected next time around, if he stands – a reflection of the turmoil in Doncaster. So there was no unambiguous rightward lurch in Donnie.

Still, all in all, the European elections represent a summary kneecapping of the establishment parties. It is no good hiding behind the excuse, as some New Labour types seem to be keen to do, that it wasn’t Labour that was defeated (at 16 percent of the votes, it most certainly was at that) it was the political establishment. What comfort is that? When you are competing to be the least hated of a despised bunch of established parties, you know that politics has gone awry. And it’s no use the Left claiming that this represents an opportunity to forge an independent Left alternative. Things are moving too fast to simply bleat such pablum, and action is needed.

The Left was represented in the European elections, badly. The No2EU Yes To Democracy ticket managed to confuse everyone with its ham-fisted message, and received virtually no votes. The Greens did very well on limited resources. In London they beat Labour into fifth, a great achievement, and took 11 percent of the vote. But nationwide, although their share of the vote increased by 44 percent, they returned the same amount of MEPs (2) and have since resorted to muttering about the injustices of the party list system. One positive was the showing of the Greens in Brighton, which is pencilled in as a big target come the next General Election. Caroline Lucas, re-elected as an MEP last night will be buoyed by the 33 percent of the vote her party mustered in the seaside town, while the party closed in on Labour in Lewisham, another potential scalp.

Other major plusses included Norwich (25 percent of the vote) and Manchester (where the Greens beat the Tories into fourth) and, of course, there were various successes across Europe. For example, the Left, and environmentalists, can take some heart from the showing of Europe Ecologie in France, a vaguely leftish environmental party headed by Daniel Cohen-Bendit, which gained 16 percent of the vote.

But you have to say that those who voted in this week’s European elections, backed right-wing, nationalist, intolerant and neoliberal forces which will do nothing to promote social equality, and will present no prospect of change in Brussels. The EU will remain very much a corporate playground, with the Parliament paralysed by divisions.

Nevertheless, two final observations are important to stress. Firstly, the European Elections were marked by yet another decline in turnout across the EU (about 43 percent, down from 45 percent in 2004). In the UK, turnout was as low as 30 percent, meaning that the victories of the BNP and UKIP do not represent evidence of a right-wing eruption amongst the British people. The Green Party worked hard to get every single vote that it received. UKIP and the BNP attracted a sizable army of knee-jerk malcontents and racists through their cheap anti-establishment posturing. Getting that kind of traction in a General Election, where turnout will double and attention on the candidates will be that much more acute, will be all but impossible. So low turnout won the BNP its MEPs.

The second observation is that the elections do not represent a referendum on “the Left.” The point was not, to take issue with Lib Dem MEP Graham Watson, that the right-wing benefited from the current economic crisis “because people don’t want a return to socialism.” This cannot be proven, however you define socialism, as none of the established “centre left” parties offered a variant of it to voters. Labour, for example, came into the elections having recently begun a drive to privatize the Royal Mail and has piloted a huge welfare package to the City of London, while promising austerity for the British people, while its MPs have been caught in the parliamentary till. Clearly voting against Labour isn’t a rejection of socialism.

What I suspect is that the European Elections tell us a great deal about the level of public anger across Europe, and how willing articulate bigots are to harness it (in Hungary, for example, the Jobbik party has come out of nowhere with a virulently anti-Romany message to claim 3 MEPs). With voters taking the European elections half-seriously, such sentiment and manipulation leads to unusual results.  The Left, which is often decidedly sceptical of parliamentary politics, has left the door open to demagogues from the right. The No2EU ticket, for example, although having plenty of issues to brandish to voters (check out this press release on the potentially disastrous Health Services Directive) utterly failed to communicate that message. No2EU failed to match the attacks mounted by UKIP et al against the EU as an alien, corrupt, un-British force, with its own attacks against the EU as a honey pot for corporations. The notion of a democratic Europe that can regulate corporate power, rather than expanding it, was nowhere to be heard, apart from the Green Party.

Still, given the Eurovision-type nature of the European Elections in popular perception, these results are just as likely to be a passing hiccup than a sea change in European politics. While Europe is undoubtedly moving to the right, the vast pool of voters who chose not to participate in that shift, and the ephemeral nature of many peoples’ grievances against Europe offer hope that a radical, democratic and cosmopolitan force can be shaped to counter the intolerance and dwarfish perspectives offered by the far-right.

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